UNDERSTANDING ELITE RULE AND POPULISM: READING VISIONARY JAMES BURNHAM

American Greatness on December 21, 2018, recommended a number of books for those interested in understanding populism in the United States. Julius Krein, the editor of American Affairs, a quarterly journal of public policy and political thought, lauded a visionary book by James Burnham (1905 – 1987). Excerpts below:

In ”The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World” (1941), James Burnham explains the economic and intellectual history of the new “managerial” society that supplanted entrepreneurial capitalism over the course of the twentieth century. Closely connected with this economic transition is the shift from parliamentary and constitutional government toward administrative bureaucracy. Any work of this type will contain some anachronisms and mistaken predictions, but many of Burnham’s insights may seem more relevant now than at the time of writing, as the trends that he identified have only accelerated since then.

While rising “populism” receives significant attention today, our understanding of the composition and interests of the so-called “elite” is severely lacking. On one hand, “Conservatives” typically denounce the “adversary culture” and “postmodernism/relativism” of today’s intellectual elite, yet too often remain blind to the economic realities behind political and social transformations. “Progressives,” by contrast, protest rising inequality, yet ignore important differences between today’s elite and that of prior periods, specifically the separation between ownership and control that prevails in managerial arrangements and distinguishes them from classical notions of capitalism.

This failure to understand the nature of the current political and economic “elite” explains why so many politicians and intellectuals of the left and right have failed to understand voters’ dissatisfaction with the status quo. Reading Burnham is essential to correcting this misunderstanding and for developing better responses to present policy problems.

Comment: Burnham’s ”The Managerial Revolution” is a classic work in the field of elite study. He followed up in 1943 with another classic, ”The Machiavellians – Defenders of Freedom”. It was an account of a remarkable group of scholars who had studied how to preserve freedom in Western society. They were Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto. The original Machiavellian was of course the great Italian Niccoló Machiavelli. His method was the method of science applied to politics. It may be surprising to describe Machiavelli as a defender of liberty. He has incorrectly often been described as a proponent of tyranny. In reality he hated tyranny and believed that only out of the continuing clash of opposing groups could liberty flow. Liberty is the dominant ideal of the Italian master thinker. It is no wonder that the powerful throughout the ages have denounced the Florentine diplomat and writer. They can recognize an enemy who like Machiavelli will never compromise.

During the Cold War Professor Burnham was an important thinker on the threat of Soviet power and published three basic studies on American strategy in the conflict between Soviet totalitarianism and Western freedom.

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